The tech giant Amazon is now valued at more than $1 trillion on the US stock market. It is bigger than the economy of Turkey or Switzerland.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, is also the richest man on Earth, with a personal fortune worth over $167 billion. At the other end of the scale, employees at Amazon’s warehouse in Melbourne describe work as a “hellscape”.
Bezos’s massive behemoth landed in Australia in January when Amazon opened its first warehouse in Dandenong, Melbourne. They opened a second warehouse in Moorebank, Sydney in August.
In Melbourne there are reportedly about 200 ‘pickers and packers’, and more at the larger site in Sydney. The workforce are mainly recent migrants and the National Union of Workers (NUW) says virtually all are employed through the labour hire agency Adecco.
Amazon has a global agreement with Adecco to supply workers in many countries.
Pay rates start at $25.36 an hour in Melbourne, between $5 and $12 an hour less than comparable unionised sites nearby. Workers are hired daily by text message.
Hiring decisions are based on the despotic surveillance of harsh time targets. Employees are required to move just below running speed. “Amazon pace”.
Bathroom breaks are avoided. Workers say they are so nervous and stressed they can’t function properly. Cult-like chants including “Success!” “Quality!” “Amazon!” are led by managers during morning warm-up routines, workers report.
Amazon’s warehouses in other countries are similar ‘hellscapes’. In Britain the union GMB reports that there have been 600 ambulances called to Amazon warehouses in three years. One warehouse had 115 calls compared to eight at another company’s similar size site.
A British undercover journalist found a bottle of urine on the shelves, evidence of workers avoiding the toilet to meet time targets.
In Amazon’s US warehouses, special wristbands monitor every hand movement. Scratching is unproductive. German workers describe airport style security checks that chew up 20 minutes of a half hour break standing in line.
These dystopian reports threaten a “new normal” for all warehouse workers as Amazon undercuts rival companies. The push to drive down wages and working conditions must be resisted.
Workers must organise to stop Amazon’s practices at this early stage in Australia, and link up with other Amazon workers around the world. It will be a challenge, but it can be done.
Warehouse workers took coordinated strike action against Amazon in Spain, Germany and Poland in July. They especially targeted Amazon’s “prime” sales promotion day, setting an example to be built upon in Australia.
In the US, underground organising drives are happening, while in China workers are pioneering effective methods of struggle in the world’s most repressive surveillance state.
Brutal forms of casual work have been beaten before in Australia. During the Great Depression, groups of dock workers used to scramble for a handful of paper tickets thrown into the air by cruel bosses at the beginning of every day. No ticket, no work. They went on to form one of Australia’s strongest unions.
Amazon and other logistics companies seem all powerful, but they are extremely vulnerable. They rely on a “just in time” delivery model, so any disruptions to their supply chains, even short ones, have a massive impact on their profitability.
The concentrated nature of their workforce gives a huge amount of power to small numbers of workers if they take planned, targeted and coordinated action. Because of the fixed, dense logistics infrastructure that exists, it is very hard for companies to move their operations. Offshoring is almost never an option.
Strike action against Amazon would generate huge sympathy among other workers. As demonstrated in Europe, international solidarity could be organised quickly and effectively. Thanks to social media, workers are more connected internationally than ever before.
A wider campaign of support from local workers would also be important, to back up on-the-job action. A strike at Amazon’s Australian operations would put the company under massive pressure, with their profit flow disrupted and their corporate terror exposed.
On this basis they could be forced to concede higher pay, better conditions and secure jobs.
A struggle like this needs to be organised by Amazon workers, and supported by the entire trade union movement.
A successful drive to win better wages and conditions for Amazon workers would give confidence to workers everywhere and help to reinvigorate the unions, which have been pushed back in recent years.
A struggle to organise Amazon would put the unions back on the map.
By Kirk Leonard